How to Write Fund Raising Letters

By Ronald T. Succem

A word that describes this kind of writing is Psycho-copy. Briefly, it is a form of writing that appeals more to the emotions than to the intellect. It is a method of communication that circumvents the barriers erected by sound rational judgment.

In other words, to write a fund raising letter (or other oral copy), you have to get emotional – you have to deal with emotions, not logic. Granted, readers like to feel that they are exercising their minds, making rational decisions. But the prime motivation comes from the emotions.

This puts a burden on you. How are you going to be emotional, yet give the reader the feeling that he is exercising his intellect? How can you be emotional without being a rabble rouser? The answer is this: Tell the story of people who are involved in your program… and let their experiences be the excuse for emotions.

People are basically interested in only one thing: Other people. They don’t care about your internal operations, or the budget, or the committee meetings, or the honors and awards you have received, or theory behind your organization. They are interested in people, and only people.

Every fund raising letter should tell the story of an individual. Rarely is there an exception. You say, “This means collecting a lot of stories”, and that’s true. You can’t write good fund raising copy unless you tell human interest stories. Every letter must tell the story of an individual.


Now let me give you a formula for writing a letter:

1. Tell the story of an individual
2. Show his need
3. Show how he can be helped
4. Show how your organization can help him
5. Show how he is only one example
6. Tell the donor how he can share in helping
7. Tell the donor you appreciate and look forward to his help
8. Add a “P.S.” telling the donor to use the reply envelope and what $10, $25, etc., will provide.

One of the key parts in your letter is the actual asking for money. This can be done directly, or you can suggest various dollar amounts, and what they will mean to the person being helped by your organization. Use illustrations showing what $10 will provide,$25, $100 the dollar amounts will be determined by the giving level of the reader. Dollar illustrations are much stronger than just asking direct. You plant the figure in the person’s mind.

Another important area to fund raising is how to design a fund raising letter.

Perhaps the best way to describe this look is to say that the letter must be in sharp contrast with the brochure. The letter is a personal message, and must look like a letter. The brochure is advertising.

Just what should a fund raising letter look like? This is a psychological question, best answered by saying it must look personal… even though it is mass produced. So what makes it look personal?

Let’s just list the elements, then come back to discuss them individually. There has to be a date, a greeting, paragraphs, type-writer style type face, a signature, and often a postscript.

DATE: A letter without a date has no origins in history. Besides, common courtesy tells the reader that the letter is fresh, immediate Normally, the date goes somewhere at the top of the letter.

GREETING: There has to be a greeting. Many times in a mass mailing you can substitute a headline in place of the name and address of the individual in a personal letter.

PARAGRAPHS… must be short. Three, four, maybe (once in awhile) five lines. Throw in a one line paragraph now and then for emphasis. Don’t be afraid to use a single sentence for a paragraph. In keeping with the traditional letter look, indent your paragraphs. This also helps the reader avoid eye strain. Try to avoid several paragraphs exactly the same number of lines. Along with variation in length, try underlining key words at the beginning of a paragraph. You can only do this once or twice in a letter otherwise you are shouting.

TYPE FACE… is important, only in that it must be a standard typewriter front and must not draw attention to itself. Never use book, newspaper or display type. Avoid script face, because it is hard to read. Really, all I can say about type face is to use a type style that is generally accepted as common in typewritten letters.

THE SIGNATURE… should be at the lower right hand corner, mainly because this is where people usually sign personal letters. The newer block style, where everything is moved to the left, is not good for fund raising letters. Be sure the signature is bold.

THE POSTSCRIPT… comes at the lower left hand side. Here you can repeat your appeal, introduce a new thought, encourage the person to use the reply device, or remind the reader of the urgency of the appeal with a time limit. Often the postscript is the first thing read in a letter.

SUMMARY: Now let me summarize: A fund raising letter must look like a letter, not an advertising piece. And there are certain elements that give a letter the proper psychological “look”… an actual date, a salutation, indented paragraphs, a signature (bold), and a postscript.


Then you are ready for the next step — adding the elements that are distinctive to a fund raising letter. You can use pictures, a letterhead, a logo, hand-written comments, list board members, staff names, and many other things if you remember to keep the right hand side of your letter clean and open. Don’t be afraid
to clutter, as long as you leave breathing room on the right hand side.

LETTERHEAD LOCATION: Rarely use a letterhead that extends all the way across the top of the page. The place for the letterhead is down the left margin.

NAMES: Connected with letterhead we must mention the importance of names. They indicate that someone endorses your organization, someone believes in it, is willing to lend their reputation for
the sake of the cause you are promoting. So don’t be afraid to list names… the more prominent the better. In a way, the list of names is simply a visual symbol that your organization is on the up and up, and you don’t care if the prospective donor reads the names or not.

PICTURES: Are of tremendous importance to a fund raising letter. Not every letter. For example, if you are personalizing a letter then you probably won’t use pictures.

For the mass produced appeal letter, pictures are of high motivational importance. I said to keep the upper right hand clean. Here is where you can put a picture of an individual, most likely the central person in the letter copy.

Or, you can run a series of three or four pictures down the left hand side of the letter.


Just how long should a letter be? This will depend entirely on your purpose for writing the letter. If you want readership, design a short letter. If you want response, you will probably have to go with a long letter.

For example, if you are writing to announce the appointment of a new vice president, all you want is readership… so your letter will be short. It only takes a few paragraphs to make an announcement.

But if you are writing to raise money… and that’s what a fund raising letter is all about… then your letters will be long. Keep in mind the difference between readership and response.

And, as you use long letters, you will need to design them so they are interesting, move the reader from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, until he is ready to respond with a “yes”.

To get him to go from page to page, never end a page on a complete paragraph or sentence. Break your thought in the middle of a key story.

Production and design have to be combined. The more personalized your letter, an auto-type, a fill-in will be standard in design. The very fact that the letter is personalized is all the design you need.

I think I should refer you to the commercial mail order manuals for information about the production of the various types of letters. There is a great deal of technical information available on this subject.

General Formula for Designing a Fund Raising Letter:

If you are a beginner, and you don’t want to launch out on your own until you have had some experience: take this formula I give you for writing a fund raising letter, and place the picture of the individual in the story in the upper right hand corner. Put a ruled line down the left hand margin. Set type for the name
and address of your organization, list a few board members, throw in a logo if you wish. Put a three line headline at the top, followed by “Dear Friend”. Write for two pages. Put in the signature, and a three line postscript.

Don’t try to get fancy or complicated with your design until you get some experience. And then, strangely enough, you may find that the most productive letter you design returns to these simple, basic elements.


1. Prefer the plain word to the fancy.
. Prefer the familiar word to the unfamiliar.
3. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.
4. Prefer nouns and verbs to adjectives and adverbs.
5. Prefer picture nouns and action verbs.
6. Never use a long word when a short one will do as well.
7. Master the simple declarative sentence.
8. Prefer the simple sentence to the complicated.
9. Vary your sentence length.
10. Put the words you want to emphasize at the beginning or  end of your sentence.
11. Use the active voice.
12. Put statements in a positive form.
13. Use short paragraphs.
14. Cut needless words, sentences, and paragraphs.
15. Use plain, conversational language. Write like you talk.
16. Avoid imitation. Write in your natural style.
17. Write clearly.
18. Avoid gobbledygook and jargon
19. Write to be understood, not to impress.
20. Revise and rewrite. Improvement is always possible.


The way you say, “Thank You” , will be the key to holding on to your new donors, and encouraging your house donors to give several times a year.

For the person who makes a gift to your organization, your thanks is the completion of a positive experience. He receives your appeal, and is motivated to send a check. Then he waits — because there is more to giving than just the knowledge you have given. He waits for a word of appreciation from you and this makes the experience complete, a full circle.

Remember that we are approaching fund raising with the concept of “I care about you”. If you care about people, you are going to express your gratitude for their gifts, and there are three basic elements that you will use to say, “Thank You”.


First of all, every gift, large or small, must get an official receipt. This is no place for taking a short cut. You
might want to limit receipts to gifts of $1, but don’t set the limit any higher. How do you know but that the person sending a single dollar might not just be testing your organization, looking for a positive experience in giving? Or how do you know that the person doesn’t have thousands of dollars to give, and to date, you just haven’t motivated them?

I know some organizations limit receipts to $5… Some give receipts only when the donor requests, or they indicate that the donor’s cancelled check can serve as a receipt. In each case, they miss the point: A receipt says that you care enough to acknowledge the gift in an official way. The donor receives the feeling that you are efficient, that your organization operates on a business basis, and that if you send a receipt, then you must also be taking good care of the donor’s gift.

If you wish, don’t look on the receipt as a tax document, or a financial record. Look at the receipt as another way you can win the confidence of the donor.

This means your receipt must be prompt. When the donor waits 6 weeks, he begins to wonder if you are taking very good care of his money. If he receives his bank statement and the check he mailed has not been deposited, he will be upset.

Your receipt should be simply designed, so that it looks official and is easy to read. Don’t use the top or bottom half of a letter. Make the receipt a separate enclosure. The receipt should carry the printed signature of the treasurer of your organization.


The second part of saying, “Thank You”, is the letter you enclose with the receipt. This can be a form letter or a personal letter, depending on the size of the gift.

As a general rule, gifts of less than $100 receive a form letter. Larger gifts receive a personalized letter, either from an automatic typewriter, or personally dictated by an executive.

A new donor will often receive a personalized letter, regardless of the size of the gift. When a donor first comes into your fold, you want to make him feel welcome. So, go to the added expense of letting him know that you know he is new– give him the basic background information about your work.

Who should sign the thank you letter? In most cases, the same person who signed the original appeal letter. This, again, relates to tying up the loose ends of the warm experience.

When Andrew R. Smite writes an impassioned plea for  money, and I send him my check, I like to think that he sees my check with his very own eyes, even though I know that such personal attention may be impossible. But nevertheless, I don’t want to be disillusioned; I want to think he knows about my gift, and what a generous person I am.

But when Andrew R. Smite never even has the manners to say, “Howdy”, but has his treasurer send me a short note, I begin to doubt that Andy really cares about me, as a person.

Writing the thank you letter calls for creative interpretation of your program. The donor wants to know how his gift helped you. So you will want to base almost every thank you letter on actual stories of individuals who have been assisted through your charity.

To do this, you will need to keep a file of stories, photographs, and illustrations. Don’t pass this job on to a
secretary… consider the thank you letter just as important a the original appeal.

How often should you change the thank you letter? That will depend on your mailing cycle. A minimum of four times a year. You might want to coordinate the change according to when you make your largest mailings. Some groups send a different letter each month, and this is ideal. Let me repeat: DON’T CUT
CORNERS WHEN YOU SAY, “THANK YOU”. You are preparing the donor for the next major appeal by winding up the giving experience — and the donor will remember how good he felt about the experience the next time you come to him for money.


The last element of the thank you package is the business reply envelope. This will result in additional gifts,
often immediately. Many people will retain the reply envelope for future use. Don’t be reluctant to enclose a reply envelope; remember, the donor expects you to be dropping clues that you want more money. He is able to defend himself if he doesn’t want to make another gift right away.

And I have never seen or heard of any data proving that enclosing a reply envelope resulted in a decrease of giving, at any level. On the other hand, I have seen many test results showing that the reply envelope in the thank you package resulted in additional gifts.

One phenomenon many organizations have observed is that a person is the most apt to give a gift of exceptional size immediately after making a small gift.

And yes, the reply envelope should be postage paid. Your job is to bring in $10 checks, not save 10c postage.


I want to mention one important function of the “Thank You” procedure. By the use of inserts you can introduce your hard-core donors to the deeper, perhaps more technical aspects of your program that would not be productive in an appeal going to the public in general.

Enclose a flyer on some special, little known phase of your work. You can even list your dollar needs for that specific project. Use the thank you letter to enclose materials about deferred giving. In fact, for many organizations this is the primary way of prospecting for deferred gifts.